Islamist fighters included Arabs and Pakistanis, residents say

A disabled Malian troop carrier stalled near a discreet French checkpoint marks the entrance to this small village, 400 km from the capital city of Bamako.

“There are still three corpses of Malian soldiers in the vehicle,” said a French soldier guarding the checkpoint, “We have set up a cordon around the village. Diabaly is now secured.”

Further up, the streets are littered with glass, metal and the burnt-out husks of rebel pickup trucks. On Monday, January 21, Malian and French forces announced the first significant victory of the battle against Islamist rebels when they officially reclaimed Diabaly, a week after it was overrun by rebel fighters.

Since early 2012, the Malian government has lost nearly two thirds of its territory, an area larger than France, to an insurgency that originated in the North. The conflict began as a rebellion of the Tuaregs, an ethnic minority with historical grievances against Bamako, to carve out a separate homeland in northern Mali, but has since escalated into a broad-based movement of foreign and Malian Islamists to annexe the country. While the Ansar Dine is still a majority Tuareg formation, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are pan-ethnic.

Three weeks ago, on January 10, the rebels entered Konna, a small town 700 km from Bamako but barely 70 km from a key military base and airport in Sevare. The push into south-central Mali prompted France to rush troops, jets, and helicopters from bases across West Africa to the aid of its former colony.

Even as French bombs slammed into Konna, the rebels advanced towards Bamako from the west, overrunning the Malian army outpost in Diabaly in a matter of hours. On the morning of January 14, residents said, a convoy of pick-up trucks materialized on the outskirts of the village.

“There were loud explosions as they attacked the Army camp,” said Hadi Arch, who runs an auto parts store on the main thoroughfare, “Everyone hid in their homes. By afternoon, the army had left and the Islamists were in control.”

A force of between 100 and 150 rebel fighters took control of Diabaly using between 20 and 30 modified pickup trucks, sources in the military said. “There was no one clear leader,” said Tumani Diakite, a young resident, “There were Algerians, Yemenis, Arabs, Pakistanis and lots of Malians as well. You could see them patrolling the streets in loose white clothes with guns and ammunition belts slung across their shoulders.”

The Malians, Diakite said, were from the Bambara, Songhai and Bellah ethnic groups and relatively few Tuaregs, suggesting that the Tuaregs have been sidelined. He could not explain how he established the nationalities of the foreign fighters, or distinguished between Afghans, Yemenis and Pakistanis, but said they were speaking a foreign language that sounded like Arabic.

Several residents corroborated Diakite’s observations, adding that the rebels did not impose any restrictions on the populace. “After they took control, they called a meeting at the mosque where they explained that they were not opposed to the population, they were only targeting the police and the army. They said, ‘You are Muslim, we are Muslim,’ and that they would slowly impose shariah but we could not leave the city,” a resident said.

Shekna Kantagu, a married man with children, was not convinced by the assurances offered by the rebels, nor did he heed their warning. “When they stopped him in the street, he tried to run away,” the resident said, “They shot him in the head.” His family was so scared of stepping outside that they buried him in their house.

“All the shops were shut, everyone just stayed indoors,” said Arch, the auto parts seller, “No one played any music, or spoke loudly on their cellphones or smoked in public.”

The rebels did not specifically prohibit such actions, said Arch but added that Diabaly residents were already aware of the harsh punishments such as flogging, stoning and, in some instance amputations, that were meted out in rebel controlled towns. Several villagers said that the rebels did not force the women to wear a hijab. “We already heard the news from Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal,” he said, “So we knew what to do.”

The death of Shekna Kantagu was the sole act of rebel violence directed at the civilians of Diabaly. Instead, rebel fighters frequently handed out large sums of money in attempts to gain new recruits. Their presence appears to have sown some dissent amongst the residents who spoke darkly of collaborators who led the rebels into Diabaly.

“We have a list of everyone who supported the rebels,” said one resident, but declined to make the names on the list public. “There are some Wahhabis in the town,” said another resident, “They may support the rebels, but they never openly say they are Wahhabis.”

The French bombardment of Diabaly began on the night of January 15, about 36 hours after the rebels took control of the village, and continued for three days. By the fourth day, residents said, the rebels departed.

“Most of the bombing was during the night and the early hours of morning using helicopters and fighter jets,” said a Malian Army officer in Diabaly, “the bombing was used to scatter the rebels, and then French Special Forces would move in over the ground, strike the rebels and retreat back beyond the town.”

“We were very impressed by their tactical acumen, particularly their movement,” said a French soldier who participated in the attacks, “They moved very quickly, dispersed when they were under fire, and got back together again.”

The debris left behind suggests that the fighters were well armed, and confirms fears that weaponry looted from Libyan armouries during the Arab Spring of 2011 has found its way to northern Mali. Amongst the wreckage, this correspondent spotted a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun mounted on a revolving turret devised out of heavy sheet metal. The entire contraption was welded on the back of a pickup truck, the most recent avatar of the improvised “technical” pickups first seen in Somalia in the 1990s. It is likely that one such vehicle could have shot down the French helicopter in Konna.

Soldiers also found a profusion of rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov ammunition, hand grenades, and even a manual for a Beamshot, barrel-mounted laser sight for light handguns.

The airstrikes targeted the rebel vehicles with great precision, while the ground forces focused on the militants themselves, soldiers said. “The aircraft can strike very small targets very efficiently,” said the French soldier, “The ground team gives precise coordinates to our helicopter and jet teams who carry out the strikes.” No civilians were killed in the operation according to the Malian military and residents interviewed in Diabaly.

As dusk slowly gave way to night, some shops switched on their lights and played music. Soon the regular beats of remixed pop music floated through the streets like an riff suspended over the regular thrum of diesel generators. “Today is the first day we are playing music at the shop,” said Mr. Arch, “It’s true that the rebels are Muslims and we are Muslims, but they have guns and I don’t like that.”

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